Mandela, Queen Elizabeth and Handel’s Messiah

There is no doubt that the reaction to Mandela's death will reflect his values of reconciliation, understanding and harmony.

 

It was the moment everyone had been waiting for. As the choir finally arrived at the Hallelujah chorus, the audience rose as one. The Cape Town City Hall does not posses the greatest acoustics, but its slightly faded interior brightened with the soaring notes. The city’s Philharmonia Choir has performed Handel’s Messiah every Easter since 1968. Then the audience would have been exclusively white. Today it is thoroughly multiracial and as the packed hall finally shuffled out, there was a warm buzz of an evening well spent. The tenor, Thembinkosi Mgetyengana, still studying at the University of Cape Town, had been particularly well received.

The City Hall has seen its fair share of illustrious guests. The Queen celebrated her twenty-first birthday here in 1947. The mayoral parlour – with its magnificent wood panelling – was redecorated specially for the occasion. On the wall an oil painting of the warship that had brought her to these shores, is depicted docked with the face of Table Mountain towering above it. On the shelf, there is a black and white photograph of Princess Elizabeth in a flowing party dress, smiling just a little nervously.

On her twenty-first birthday, on the 21 April 1947, the princess was touring South Africa with her parents and younger sister. In a speech broadcast on the radio from Cape Town, she spoke of dedicating her life to the service of the Commonwealth. “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belongs,” she said.

But it is for another, more famous speech, for which this Town Hall is best known. Just below the mayoral parlour, up a short flight of steps from the street, is the modest balcony that was once the centre of world attention. It was from here, on Sunday 11 February 1990 that Nelson Mandela made his first public address after his release from 27 years of imprisonment. The Grand Parade, laid out before the City Hall, was packed with more than 250,000 people. The speech was televised live around the world.

Mandela, his voice ringing with emotion, told the vast audience, “I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.” He went on to thank the millions who had “campaigned tirelessly” for his release, before addressing people the City of Cape Town itself. “I extend special greetings to the people of Cape Town, the city which has been my home for three decades. Your mass marches and other forms of struggle have served as a constant source of strength to all political prisoners.”

Today, at 94, Nelson Mandela is once more back in hospital, suffering from pneumonia. It is the third time he’s been treated in an undisclosed hospital in the past year. The South African public are given brief, reassuring bulletins on his condition, but it is no longer in the headlines or the topic of conversation. Most people seem resigned that the man who so inspired the country is now in some sort of transition between this world and the next. It has been years since he took an active part in politics and even glimpses of Mandela in public have been rare events. World leaders have, sometimes, been allowed to visit him, but even these have become increasingly infrequent.

It is, perhaps, the calm before the storm. The international media have been preparing for the Mandela death for years. Achieves have been trawled, locations recced, guests booked. Days of non-stop coverage have been meticulously planned. Even the Mandela’s old party – the ANC – is said to have quietly appointed a public relations firm to handle the avalanche of media attention that his demise is certain to unleash.

One question almost every journalist has been asked for years is: what will happen when Mandela goes? The seldom articulated implication is clear – will the reconciliation that he preached be swept away in a tide of black anger? It is not difficult to find websites predicting just such an outcome. One suggests 70,000 will be killed in a Communist inspired plot.

While predicting the future is always a mug's game, this kind of speculation is no more than far-right hysteria. No one doubts that Mandela’s death will be met with a vast outpouring of emotion from ordinary South Africans – of all races. But it will be tempered by the values that he stood for: of reconciliation, understanding and harmony among his people. The country’s institutions are sound and its roots are deep. They will survive even the passing of its most revered son.   

Nelson Mandela speaking on a trip back to Robben Island in 2003. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism